July 08, 2007

The Linguistic Abilities of the Presidential Candidates

In the 2004 election, John Kerry's ability to speak French played a certain role. In anticipation of the 2008 election, I've gathered what information I could about the linguistic abilities of potential candidates. Curiously, it seems that few American Presidents have been able to speak any language other than English. Only one has had a language other than English as his first language: though born in New York State, Martin van Buren (1837-1841), spoke Dutch before he spoke English. Of recent Presidents, Jimmy Carter is reported to speak imperfect but functional Spanish. I don't know if he did when he was President or if he has improved in his retirement. As far as I can tell, no other recent President has been able to speak a language other than English. (President George Bush is often said to speak Spanish, but most of my sources indicate that he speaks it very poorly. However, he apparently understands Spanish well. His brother Jeb, however, is truly fluent.)

Michael Bloomberg (Republican)
Speaks no language other than English well but is reported to be studying Spanish. Source
Sam Brownback (Republican)
Is reported to have been taking Spanish classes since 2004. I have no information on what level of ability this has led to. Source
Hillary Clinton (Democrat)
Apparently monolingual.
Christopher Dodd (Democrat)
Speaks Spanish quite passably, though with a definite American accent, as a result of service in the Peace Corps. Source Source Source Source
John Edwards (Democrat)
Appears to speak no language other than English.
Jim Gilmore (Republican)
Speaks fluent German as a result of service as a US Army counterintelligence officer in West Germany. Source
Newt Gingrich (Republican)
Speaks no language other than English well but is reported to be studying Spanish. Source
Rudy Giuliani (Republican)
In spite of his identification with the Italian-American community, I can find no indication that he speaks Italian. Apparently a monolingual English speaker. His wife is reported to be learning Spanish.
Mike Gravel (Democrat)
Is a fluent native speaker of Canadian French. Source Source
Mike Huckabee (Republican)
Speaks no language other than English but reads New Testament Greek. Source
John Kerry (Democrat)
Speaks fluent French. Source Source His wife Teresa speaks fluent Spanish, French, Italian and Portuguese. Source Source
Dennis Kucinich (Democrat)
Has been studying Spanish. He is apparently not yet very fluent but is able to speak to some extent extemporaneously and carry on a conversation of sorts. Source
John McCain (Republican)
He is not reported to speak any language other than English. If he learned Vietnamese during his years in Vietnam, he does not seem to have mentioned it.
Barack Obama (Democrat)
Speaks Indonesian and limited Spanish. Source Source
Ron Paul (Republican)
Speaks Spanish. Source
Colin Powell (Republican)
Speaks Yiddish. Exactly how well is not clear. He describes it as a bissel "a little" but may be being modest. Apparently more than just the odd word but less than what is necessary to carry on a real conversation. Source
Bill Richardson (Democrat)
A native speaker of Spanish, he is also reported to speak French well. Source
Mitt Romney (Republican)
Is said to speak fluent French resulting from serving a 30 month mission in France. There are reports that he also speaks Swahili, though I cannot determine where he might have learned it and have not confirmed this.Source

By the way, Howard Dean, who is not running this time, also speaks Spanish. His Spanish is reported to be "pretty heavily accented, nerdy, Northeastern Spanish, but, still, pretty good Spanish." Source.

PS: Don't be surprised if the page changes. I'm updating it as additional information comes in.

Posted by Bill Poser at July 8, 2007 01:07 AM